February 7, 2016

Sunday Diversions: February, Part One

A conversation with an Uber driver earlier this week about the reluctance of his (former) taxi dispatch company to listen to his ideas made me wonder: am I doing a good enough of job of listening to ideas from others? Or am I just driving towards obsolescence?

Here’s what I’ve loved reading this week:

How Wile E. Coyote Explains The World, Albert Burneko

The grand, great, unifying joke of Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons is the gradual, clever, misdirection-filled revelation of their one absolute law, and what it means for Wile E. Coyote, and what exactly you’re recognizing when you laugh at him. Michael Maltese wrote this goddamn joke; Chuck Jones brought it to animated life, painstakingly, frame by frame; they both worked on it for years. How could neither of them have gotten it?

Horizontal History, Tim Urban

The reason history is so hard is that it’s so soft. To truly, fully understand a time period, an event, a movement, or an important historical figure, you’d have to be there, and many times over. You’d have to be in the homes of the public living at the time to hear what they’re saying; you’d have to be a fly on the wall in dozens of secret, closed-door meetings and conversations; you’d need to be inside the minds of the key players to know their innermost thoughts and motivations. Even then, you’d be lacking context. To really have the complete truth, you’d need background—the cultural nuances and national psyches of the time, the way each of the key players was raised during childhood and the subtle social dynamics between those players, the impact of what was going on in other parts of the world, and an equally-thorough understanding of the many past centuries that all of these things grew out of.

That’s why not only can’t even the most perfect history buff fully understand history, but the key people involved at the time can’t ever know the full story. History is a giant collective tangle of thousands of interwoven stories involving millions of characters, countless chapters, and many, many narrators.

Unearthing the Sea Witch, Nicole Pasulka and Brian Ferree

This is the story of how Glenn Milstead, a big-haired, poo-eating Charm City drag queen named Divine, came to inspire a Disney villainess.

That an indelible character in a children’s cartoon is a composite of 1980s gay life, bold women with gravelly voices, the AIDS crisis, independent film, Hollywood, Baltimore, and the tragic premature deaths of two exceptionally creative men shouldn’t surprise us. The best characters originate in artists’ complicated lives. And Ursula was surely one of the best. 

Maximum Wage, Steven Johnson

Let’s say we decided as a society that no private company should have a pay ratio above 40:1. That would lead to a radical decrease in income inequality, and it wouldn’t involve a cent of additional taxes. Every private company would be allowed to keep the exact same portion of its income. The government wouldn’t be extracting money out of the private sector; it would just put some boundaries on the way the private sector distributes its money internally. Critics would scream that such a dramatic intervention would be terrible for business, but of course the one sector of the economy that has already voluntarily embraced this ratio turns out to have nurtured the most profitable corporations in the history of capitalism. This would no doubt be fiddling with the natural markets for wages, but we fiddle with these all the time, through progressive income taxes, earned income tax credits, subsidies, and tax incentives. We have a minimum wage. What if we had a maximum ratio?

The Inequality Problem, Ed Miliband

Putnam focuses on two young people, one from each side of the tracks. Andrew is the son of Patty and Earl, who run a construction business. He has security and access to resources; he has made it to college, and can plan his future with confidence. Kayla is the son of Joe and Darleen, who met as low-wage refugees’ at Pizza Hut. Kayla’s childhood was marked by economic hardship; her parents broke up, and she now lives with her boyfriend and sick father, trying to deal with his illness and a fear of everything kind of falling apart’. Putnam supplies a series of scissors graphs’ comparing the socioeconomic experiences over the last few decades of the children of parents who left education at 18 or earlier with those of children who go on to get a college degree. Whichever measure you choose — family breakdown, amount of time spent with children, the availability of informal mentoring networks — the pattern is the same: thirty years ago, the two groups were close together; since then, they have steadily grown further apart. Putnam doesn’t dismiss the cultural shifts that might have contributed to these trends, but he insists that a significant part of the blame lies at the door of economic policy: Poverty produces family instability, and family instability in turn produces poverty.’

Everybody’s a Critic. And That’s How It Should Be., A. O. Scott

The days of the all-powerful critic are over. But that figure — high priest or petty dictator, destroying and consecrating reputations with the stroke of a pen — was always a bit of a myth, an allegorical monster conjured up by timid artists and their insecure admirers. Criticism has always been a fundamentally democratic undertaking. It is an endless conversation, rather than a series of pronouncements. It is the debate that begins when you walk out of the theater or the museum, either with your friends or in the private chat room of your own head. It’s not me telling you what to think; it’s you and me talking. That was true before the Internet, but the rise of social media has had the thrilling, confusing effect of making the conversation literal.

Like every other form of democracy, criticism is a messy, contentious business, in which the rules are as much in dispute as the outcomes and the philosophical foundations are fragile if not vaporous. We all like different things. Each of us is blessed with a snowflake-special consciousness, an apparatus of pleasure and perception that is ours alone. But we also cluster together in communities of taste that can be as prickly and polarized as the other tribes with which we identify. We are protective of our pleasures, and resent it when anyone tries to mock or mess with them.

Degustation Laconic, Aaron Timms

Menus are some of the most studied, obsessed-over documents in the world, but their composition remains a subject of little exploration. Perhaps this is inevitable: people go to restaurants to enjoy food, not to argue over authorship and usage. But that is changing. Menus are now fodder for internet comedy: the website brooklynbarmenus.com offers aspiring hospitality operators in the booming New York borough an automatic menu generation tool (sample items: seasonal pepper discs”, rustic watermelon toss and blistered chorizo”, tormented oyster”).

One hundred years ago, New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel advertised its chicken main course as Chicken”. The description of a beef main was only slightly more elaborate: Rib of beef”. As restaurant dining Frenchified through the 20th century, menus threw off this reticence: where once diners had been brutalised with mutton”, suddenly there was a flowering of veloutés and gastriques. The past few decades — in the English-speaking world, at least — have been one long tale of menu de-Frenchification. We’ve gone from the jungle to the tundra, elaborate cursive fonts and teeming course descriptions replaced by a succession of monkish truncations. The parody websites don’t go far enough: menus have returned to something like their original state. In Brooklyn today, at Chef’s Table restaurant, a high temple of North American tweezer food, Cesar Ramirez uses no more than a single word to describe each course. Fluke. Butter. Scallop.

Future Imperfect, Bethlehem Shoals

Future is hardly the first rapper to look inward, expand the genre’s range of emotion, or favor sparse, atmospheric tracks. What makes Future so compelling is how intent he seems on breaking down rap’s conventions, seemingly for his own amusement or out of sheer disillusionment. The trend continues on Purple Reign, his latest unofficial release. Future’s vocals are a ravaged, haunting sing-song as he deploys Autotune like an effects pedal gone haywire. He rides the beat effortlessly, at times haphazardly, finding tricky pockets of rhythm to fit in stray words or emphases. Lyrics tumble out seemingly at random; even his most fully formed thoughts fail to connect, despite touching on frequent rap fare: Crime, money, drugs, strippers, wealth, and just generally being the best. The beats he chooses are minimal and woozy, anchored only by skittering drums and—this goes for Future’s music as a whole—an uncanny knack for melody that at least partly explains his immense popularity.

But Future doesn’t just break the mold, he actively scorns it. He makes purists groan while at the same time scraping much of the luster off from a hedonistic, glamorized materialistic rap lifestyle that he can barely bring himself to enjoy. If Future didn’t make such irrepressible music, and if he weren’t such a supremely confident presence in the booth, he’d be more important for what he isn’t rather than what he is. When Lil Wayne declared himself an alien from outer space, it was to assert his Superman-like dominance over all the competition. Future is downright otherworldly. It’s not hard to imagine, him, literally or figuratively, wandering through some desolate, craggy landscape, rapping about the finer things and good times in a desperate attempt to convince himself that all is not lost, or to soldier on in search of … well, whatever it is that Future wants.

When Movies Fly: How Your Modern Internet Experience is Made Possible by Airplanes, Dan Wang

In spite of rapid improvements in computing power, bandwidth capacity—the amount of data that can be sent over an Internet connection—has not kept up. We’re all familiar with Moore’s Law, which predicts that computing power grows at an annualized rate of 60% a year, implying a rate of doubling of every two years. You should know about two other, less famous laws. The first is Kryder’s Law, which maps the growth of data storage; the second is Nielsen’s Law, which maps the growth of Internet bandwidth.

Dr. Mark Kryder, who formulated the eponymous law, explained to us in an email that Moore’s Law and Kryder’s Law have advanced at roughly the same rate. That should make sense. Computer architects would say that it’s desirable,” he remarks. If the speed of a computer didn’t increase with its storage capacity, you wouldn’t be able to do much with the stored data.”

But increases in bandwidth capacity have not kept up with Moore’s Law and Kryder’s Law. While storage capacity and computing power have grown at 60% a year, growth in bandwidth capacity clocked in at just 50%. That is, hard drives are getting smaller—and therefore cheaper to transport—at a faster rate than improvements in Internet bandwidth. So companies have been finding it cheaper, and faster, to send data by air or sea in hard drives rather than over the Internet.

Most interestingly, given the delta in the rates of growth of these laws, we should expect more and more Internet traffic to be delivered offline. The more data we’re able to store in a given physical size, the faster it is to fly those files. Counterintuitively, technological progress is actually favoring moving more data by jets, not less.

Gay Or Straight, Finn/Poe Matters, Matt Brown

It has to do with the reason the Finn/Poe meme has gained so much strength so quickly: these two dudes are affectionate, honest, and entirely non-competitive with one another, in a way that almost never happens in Hollywood media.

Both men behave, throughout The Force Awakens, as though they exist in a world where the rulebook of contemporary gender codes simply doesn’t exist. (They do: it’s the world called Star Wars!) When do we see men swap clothes? When do we see men freely ask one another for help? When do we see men leap wholeheartedly into an embrace, without it being followed by some sort of embarrassed joke?

The 27th Letter, Mairead Small Staid

The prevalence of the ampersand in the wedding invitations arrayed on my refrigerator speaks, I think, to a knowledge, conscious or not, of usage rules like the WGAs. The ampersand signifies a closeness that and merely shrugs at, makes of two parts—or people—a single unit: Dolce & Gabbana. Rhythm & blues. Andrew & Martha.

Nipplegate Revisited: Why America Owes Janet Jackson a Huge Apology, Emmanuelle Hapsis

We like to think we’re far removed from America’s dark past, as if printing (some of) the facts into textbooks absolved us and negated the impact of all of that history, but situations like the treatment of Janet after the Halftime Show prove that the struggle for civil rights for women and people of color is an ongoing negotiation. The oppression is still all around us; it has simply evolved and learned how to camouflage.